The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Thursday, October 17, 2002  

Chomsky as “Easy Mark”

To: The Rittenhouse Review
From: Donald Johnson
Date: Oct. 14, 2002

I’m not in agreement with Noam Chomsky on a number of issues, but it seems to me that his fundamental point is correct: the United States government has been complicit in terror on a massive scale and one simply can’t say anything sensible about our foreign policy that doesn’t take this into account. His other fundamental point is that his first point is generally ignored by the mainstream press and commentators, including the liberals.

I won’t bore you with a list of American crimes but one seems particularly relevant today--the deliberate destruction of water treatment plants in the Gulf War. The New York Times reported on Oct. 6 that the Geneva Conventions might be modified. One of the possible modifications would include outlawing the deliberate destruction of water treatment plants, something I would have though already covered in the sections outlawing attacks aimed at the civilian population.

I’m going to list another in the same vein. On my own I never would have discovered that Human Rights Watch had put out a detailed study of Turkey’s brutal treatment of its Kurdish population during the mid-90s, and the American support given to that campaign. Chomsky mentioned it in a book attacking America’s Kosovo intervention. I found the study online after looking for it on the HRW website. I don’t have to agree with Chomsky about Kosovo to be grateful to him for telling his readers about America’s role in supplying weapons to Turkey to kill Kurds.

Even when he’s wrong he brings up issues that his critics prefer to ignore. Chomsky was right to point out that the U.S. government had ordered Pakistan to cease food aid to Afghanistan immediately after Sept. 11. It was reported in the New York Times. Chomsky was right to repeat the warnings of the relief organizations that a prolonged war could cause a massive famine. In fact, before the Taliban suddenly crumbled, Donald Rumsfeld said the war might drag on for as long as 23 months (i.e., just under two years). Even as it was, the cutoff in food probably caused an increase in deaths in the low tens of thousands, something you can learn from reading the Guardian (May 20, 2002), but not any American paper.

Chomsky was guilty of using overheated rhetoric (like the word “genocide”), but given America’s record in casually supporting the Iraqi sanctions without concern for the people, it was understandable. I think the war did more good than harm, even for the Afghans, but for the most part the U.S. press is too cowardly to fully discuss the costs.

Chomsky isn’t perfect, not by a long shot. But until the mainstream press and the pundits start dealing honestly with the harm that America sometimes inflicts on innocent people, I will continue to read every book and every article he puts out.

Donald Johnson

Jim Capozzola responds:

Nothing is more certain to spark correspondence from readers than a less-than-awestruck mention of Noam Chomsky, except perhaps a disparaging remark about Gore Vidal. The reasons for this I have not been able to determine, but it certainly makes for some interesting reading: some of it angry and nonsensical and some of it thoughtful and intelligent. Mr. Johnson’s letter falls into the latter group, for which I am grateful.

Now that I’ve been writing The Rittenhouse Review for six months, I should know that while the nature of this work generates quickly written takes on the events of the day, readers expect a degree of precision that is not always foremost in my mind at the moment. Such is the case here.

In a recent post about the Weekly Standard, I wrote, “[David] Brooks takes a few shots at Noam Chomsky, but who hasn’t? Frankly, I’m no fan of Chomsky, and despite his reputed brilliance, I think he’s an easy mark.”

The larger point I hoped to make with these two sentences was that Brooks had fallen into the conservative formula, or trap, of using Chomsky as the front-line whipping boy in his attack latest against liberals who oppose a war upon Iraq. This is standard fare on the other side, for Chomsky is the right wing’s great bogeyman. All a conservative writer need do is mention Chomsky’s name and the huzzahs go up from one coast to the other, from the Heritage Foundation to the Hoover Institution.

But does placing Chomsky front and center in a debate over the Bush administration’s foreign policy reflect the reality of political discussion or the debate that should be taking place? I don’t think so. Conservatives who engage in this maneuver do so first, I think, out of laziness, but more so in an attempt to write off anyone who disagrees with them. “You see,” they say, “this is the liberal viewpoint,” when it is nothing of the kind. Brooks is a consummate practitioner of this tactic, quoting, as he did, Susan Sontag and Tony Kushner, rather than taking on real-world politicians or even the academicians specializing in foreign policy and international relations, a group of men and women with greater credibility among those of us who discuss policy outside the framework of the Modern Language Association and The Militant.

Chomsky is an extremist and I have little doubt he is happy to be regarded as such. Extremists play their own particular role in politics, defining the edges and establishing the broadest parameters of debate. And while you are correct that Chomsky raises issues American policy makers, and indeed Americans, would like to ignore, his overblown rhetoric (some of which seeps into your letter), his propensity to exaggerate, and his predilection for serving as prosecution, judge, and jury has undermined his value as a critic of American foreign policy. It is all too easy to find “gotcha” quotes from Chomsky that, either within or taken out of context, make him sound like a demented clown with a soft spot for Third World tyrants. “He speaks truth to power,” or some other similar formulation, is often put forward in Chomsky’s defense. Well, that’s one way of looking at it. “He speaks his truth to the choir” or “He speaks his truth to the wind” would be others.

I wish you the best in your effort to continue reading “every book and every article he puts out.” I can’t help but wonder, however, if that includes Chomsky’s work on such topics as syntax, semantics, bare phrase structure, and generative grammar. After all, some of that stuff is pretty tough going.

Thank you for visiting the site and for writing to The Rittenhouse Review.

Yours truly,
James M. Capozzola

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